Child art

The other day my wife and I had our neighbors over on our backyard patio for drinks and a swim. As the adults settled in, the neighbor girls, age three and six, played on the swingset for a while. But this was not sufficient outlet for their infant energies, so I fetched a box of big colored chalk for them to use on the concrete floor of the patio.

In short order the girls had produced a marvelous likeness (well, a likeable facsimile) of those gathered:

child art
Neighbor girls create family in colored chalk, while actual family drinks booze in the heat.

The sisters, six and three years old, took to this artful task, or pleasure, as fish to water — maybe the water that a waited them in the pool just beyond the patio. For the girls, Jocelyne and Chloe, I suspect, the pleasure of making art is equal to that of splashing in the pool.

So when does it all go wrong? When does art become a drag, not a pleasure, whether we’re creating it or “appreciating” it? (And if we see nothing pleasurable in it, we can’t appreciate, or enlarge, it, can we?)

I’m not a child psychologist or professional art critic, but I’ve seen enough of children and of art that I have a few guesses.

The burdens of the real world, the reality principle, pile on. Obligations succeed pleasure, and pleasure is tamped down.

Growing up entails leaving the child world and its pleasures. When the child is three or four, he can’t get away with fouling his pants anymore. No one thinks it’s cute anymore. Throwing up is frowned on suddenly — till everybody is 18, anyway, and drunk together and children together once more.

In the realm of education, too, as the child is handed over from parents to teachers, she is told in so many ways to grow up. To abandon pleasure. To forget about doodling and dreaming. to get on with the business of growing up, going vertical, transcending.

He won’t be able to play with Peter Pan forever. He can’t remain in Neverland. It’s a sad, sad day when he’s pulled away from dream and play.

What do you think? Do you still color in chalk, or watercolor, or oil? Do you still scribble? Do you still dream?

Weary giants of flesh and steel

In the current New Yorker, Ed Caesar writes about a bunker-based server business in Germany that hosts many criminal enterprises. The Dutchman who owns the business — self-baptized “Xennt” and called by a friend “horny for bunkers” — and his associates espouse libertarian ideals expressed in a 1996 manifesto by John Perry Barlow, an anarchist writer, which proclaims, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s sentiments are libertarian and anarchist. We can admire the fervid poetic expression here, but not be swayed.

By now, almost 25 years after Barlow’s manifesto, his words may be both familiar and wearisome. Have they toppled the weary giants of flesh and steel? No. Have they put dents or wounds in ’em? Perhaps.

W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats, poet, dandy, rocker.

Thinking of anarchy, I think of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats wrote this in 1919, in the interregnum between WW I and WW II. The lines also foreshadow various and sundry other modern wars and conflagrations, the fruits of “passionate intensity,” the refusal to see another point of view, to compromise, to reason, to get along.

To use Robert Frost’s famous phrase, living without order is like playing tennis without a net. (No, this doesn’t mean all contemporary poetry should be sonnets or terza rima or other formal structures.) “Unless you enchain me,” says John Donne, Yeats’s and Frost’s predecessor by several centuries, “I never can be free.” Donne is talking to the Lord, of course, but whatever authority you prefer — God, Erps. Uncle Sam, giants of flesh and steel — call on him/her/it and charge ahead.

This appeal to authority can be made in the sphere of poetry also. No one can make you write iambic pentameter or rhyme like a rapper or a Hallmark Card drudge. Modernist and postmodern poetry is various and tumultuous in content — addressing government and power, politics, and the passions and intimacies of personal relationships — as well as form — the cadences and vocabulary of everyday speech, the occasional esoteric verbal geode, the surprises of the ordinary day or the ordinary wine (my vin ordinaire of choice is Bota Box’s Nighthawk Black, a jammy red wine blend).

Each writer discovers his or her own sense of order. Becomes hisr own authority. (Sorry, I cannot write “each writer … their,” so propose a neologistic escape from the trap of gender and grammar.) But the author’s authority must be there. The reader, that is, must be able to see in the writing, whether poetry or prose, history or chemistry, whatever, a sense that the writer knows what s/he is doing. Or has learned it, and incorporated it, in the process of writing.

Without order, there’s anarchy, whether in art or business. Do you want to host criminal enterprises?

How do we discover order for ourselves, our own authority as authors? A great question, yes? Stay tuned and let me hear what you have to say, please. For each scribbler, each artist, the answer may be different, but I’ll wager we can find some common ground simply by discussing the issues.